Given its headline-grabbing Dunkirk spirit at the start of the health emergency, it might be fitting, although no less regrettable, if the Dunedin Consort’s annual performances of Handel’s Messiah prove to be the last live concerts the sector feels able to undertake in Scotland for a while once again.
As it happened, the chamber group’s artistic director John Butt was simultaneously audible on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday evening, conducting the same work with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Chorus, in a performance recorded a week previously. It seems unlikely that he tore through Part 1 of the oratorio with those forces quite as briskly as Perth heard it.
In his usual style, standing at the harpsichord, the conductor brought the first section to the interval in under an hour, leaving time to perform some of the music that is often cut from Parts 2 and 3. (I should add that this equation is my own, and may not be how the University of Glasgow’s Gardiner Professor of Music sees it.)
With the soloists stepping out from a choir of 12 and the same number of players joining Butt on the platform – with trumpets and timpani added later – the compact forces are nimble but never feeble. It is easy to identify individual voices in the choruses but at the same time the blending is mostly spot on. There were a couple of lumpy moments in Part 2, and a technical problem with Nicholas Wearne’s chamber organ also necessitated a brief hiatus, but that sequence of the work also provided one of this performance’s revelations.
Although the words of the New Testament version are rarely used, Charles Jennens’ libretto and Handel’s music demonstrate the switch of allegiance in the crowd in Jerusalem in the Easter story in the singing of the choruses – and that piece of structural cleverness was superbly clear here and part of a fine choral acting performance that was at the heart of the concert.
Of the four soloists, tenor Nicholas Mulroy and soprano Mhairi Lawson led the way in their storytelling style, the latter drawing a fine distinction between that job in Part 1 and the personal introspective arias later on. They also added the most individual ornamentation when appropriate, while bass Robert Davies played things with more of a straight bat, stentorian of tone. Alto Owen Willetts also has a powerful voice, fading a little at the bottom of his range, and his diction was perhaps not as sharp as that of the others, although the clarity overall was exceptional.
As their first performance of the work in a while, this Dunedin Messiah was perhaps not entirely “run-in” when measured against the group’s own high standards, but if it turns out to the last live music anyone in the hall hears for a while, they will surely consider themselves blessed.
Twenty years ago Paul Baxter envisaged a bright future for a new Scottish record label. He wasn’t wrong. KEN WALTON reports
Paul Baxter, founder and managing director of the classical music recording label Delphian, has never been one to hold back his irrepressible enthusiasm for the award-winning East Lothian-based company he established two decades ago. Then, freshly graduated from Edinburgh University, he ignored those in a famously fickle industry who advised him this was not a good idea. “I said I would break even in eight years,” he trumpets. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
Another 12 years on, Delphian has done significantly better than break even. Its astute focus on niche market territories – choral and chamber music and an eye for spotting and nurturing nascent young talent – together with Baxter’s sharp production skills and wheeler-dealer persona, have more than paid off. The company now employs twelve professional staff worldwide, production is frenetic and sales are soaring, even during the current pandemic. Its most recent choral release, Christmas in Puebla (see VoxCarnyx reviews) is racking up rave commendations and reviews.
“It’s going to appear in history that we weren’t affected at all by Covid,” insists the bullish Baxter. Really, I ask? Can anyone truly claim that? As he outlines the plain facts they speak for themselves. “In August alone, we did eight new recordings, which was pretty unique for any organisation at that time. Our physical CD sales in the UK alone have gone up by four times.”
Hits to the Delphian website during peak lockdown increased an eye-watering 243,000 per cent, he claims, 80 percent of which were completely new customers. Baxter admits they do not all translate into purchases, but it’s an interesting indicator of where classical aficionados are turning in the absence of live music.
“We don’t actually encourage sales from our website, as we are a record label not a store, so we price our CDs above the actual stores. Yet since March we’ve sold 14,000 discs directly through our website. Multiply that by the other websites that sell for us and the figures are mind-blowing.”He admits the international picture is varied, depending on whether customers prefer high street or online purchase.
“The Japanese are massive buyers of western classical music, and they want it on CD. Unfortunately, under lockdown, because they don’t buy their CDs online, the Japanese market was devastated,” says Baxter. “And in a country like Spain, where people still go down to their local record store, we sold no CDs the whole summer, whereas other territories, including the UK, thrived under lockdown in a way that was completely unanticipated.”
To sell, of course, you need to produce the goods. Baxter claims it was foresight and planning that helped maintain lockdown productivity, a policy of “line them up, stack ‘em and rack ‘em”. Social distancing, though, posed inevitable problems.
“Straightaway it was clear choral recordings weren’t going to happen anytime soon,” he recalls. Given Delphian’s significant ongoing relationships with such choirs as Merton College Oxford and King’s College London, the ramifications were considerable. “Any choral projects we had in the timeline we knew would have to be postponed.”
But Baxter had a plan. “We needed to reach out to venues that were going to be dark, where nothing else was happening for them, where we could bash projects out the moment we are allowed. So we approached the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, told them we had cash and nowhere to spend it, and could we have it for the whole of August at a reduced rate. They agreed, we were delighted to get so much done, and the artists were just as delighted because they were getting paid fees.”
The process was not without its headaches, particularly the logistics of bringing three globally-spread singers and a pianist together for a new album, due out next April, of Erik Chisholm songs. “With four days to go, the original Vienna-based Scots soprano made a last-minute decision not to travel, so we had to find someone available and willing to step in. Mhairi Lawson kindly agreed, but then we had to find a rehearsal venue for her. David Wilde [a regular Delphian artist] very kindly hosted us in his drawing room with a Steinway, pianist Iain Burnside flew up from London, and all was well.” The other two singers were tenor Nicky Spence and bass-baritone Michael Mofidian.
All is not well, of course, in a wider recording industry that is currently struggling to come to terms with the advent of streaming, via companies like Spotify, which has blown apart the old industry economics. Last week, a Commons culture committee looking into “The Economics of Music Streaming” heard evidence from pop artists like Mercury prize nominee Nadine Shah who have found themselves unable “to keep the wolf from the door” with the pittances they are receiving in royalties, compared to the percentages going to the corporate stakeholders, including some big labels.
For classical musicians it’s in many ways worse. Scots composer Stuart McRae tested the water by putting one of his own works on repeat for two days on Spotify, generating over 1000 plays and a remuneration of 87p. Explaining this in a Tweet, he had calculated that running the same piece 24/7 for an entire year would have netted him £172.64. Violinist Tasmin Little has claimed that, in return for 5-6 million streams over a six-month period, she received just £12.34.
There’s no question that has to be fixed. But it’s not the only area of change affecting artists and their relationships with the record companies. Smaller independent labels like Delphian have had to work harder and more imaginatively at partnerships with artists in order to fund projects and provide wider planning and support.
“For twenty years the way recordings are funded and how they are valued has been changing,” Baxter argues. “Artists are absolutely au fait with the fact that they need to bring money to the table, because labels can’t survive otherwise. Now it’s a competition as to which label is going to offer you the best PR, which label is going to make sure that your record is in front of the right reviews editors, and therefore stands the best chance of winning a Gramophone Award.
“Look how we’ve built a career like Sean Shibe’s,” says Baxter, offering a classic example of his label’s nurturing strategy. The 28-year-old Edinburgh-born guitarist’s latest Delphian disc, released in May during lockdown and featuring Bach lute suites, hit No 1 in the UK Specialist Classical Charts, and led to a cover feature in Gramophone Magazine’s June edition, in which it was named Editor’s Choice. Shibe previously won a Gramophone Award for his 2019 album softLOUD. “That’s all very carefully considered, very carefully planned out, years in the making,” Baxter insists.
Spotting talent early, he says, is done increasingly these days through social media. Take the guitarist Alexandra Whittingham. “We had a look at her stats – millions and millions of listens on YouTube – and reached out to her with what we had done for Sean.” She signed up with Delphian in July. Her debut album, My European Journey, hits the streets in March 2021. Baxter’s latest new signing is Scots percussionist Calum Huggan, who has just recorded his launch CD of 20th century American music for marimba.
To make it work for everyone, Baxter argues that loyalty is a two-way street. “It’s like with authors and book publishers. If an artist shops around and records with six different labels, nobody will invest in you uniquely because I’m not going to pay several thousands of pounds out for a campaign on the basis that other labels are going to benefit from it. But if you can work together and form an exclusive relationship that is mutually beneficial, it’s win, win, win.”
Not always, it seems. In June, Shibe announced he had signed a multi-album deal with Dutch-based label Pentatone.
Nonetheless, Baxter is comfortable with the kind of deal he puts on the table. “I think for a period things will operate as they currently are, whereby it’s incumbent on artists to find funding for projects. That’s becoming an integral part of their portfolio of work – entertaining patrons, making funding applications. They are now accepting this as a common day occurrence.” For its part, Delphian has established an additional new supportive association with The Young Classical Artists Trust.
As for the current Commons committee enquiry into streaming, Baxter preference is clearly that an eventual outcome reflects his belief in the key driving role of record labels in benefitting the artist. “If it’s made incumbent on streaming sites to better remunerate record labels, then good record labels will use that money to initiate new projects, not just take it and keep it in a war chest,” he argues. “Good labels are increasing their intellectual property all the time by commissioning projects.”
Even as Covid lingers, Delphian continues to do so. Baxter is anxious, though, to get back to full operation. “I just can’t wait to be working with choirs again. I had no way of anticipating how much I’d miss working with young people in choirs. I’ve missed that so much.”
And there’s the small matter of a 21st birthday bash to organise for 2021.